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If there is an upside to Uber’s months of upheaval, it may be in the lecture halls of business schools.

Uber was already a popular subject — highly familiar to students, with a rapid trajectory from scrappy startup disrupting the taxi industry to global transportation behemoth. Its latest challenges make the 8-year-old company even more enticing.

“It’s a fantastic case study,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a management professor and senior associate dean for leadership studies at the Yale School of Management. “It’s too good to waste. They’ve had multiple crises with personal conduct issues at the top, regulatory and operational flaws, gender and value issues. Then there are the flashpoints of crisis management, all the executive departures and a powerful vacuum, possibly disharmony on the board.”

Case studies, business schools’ favorite way of examining real-world dilemmas, present students with a specific business situation, ask them to identify and analyze a problem and suggest courses of action.

“It’s a textbook case,” aid Ira Kalb, a marketing professor at the University of Southern California. “I use Uber in assignments all the time for all the different issues that come up.”

The worse things get, the more problems there are to explore, even while Uber’s core business continues its astonishing growth. Sonnenfeld characterizes it as “a company with a great technical model and a terrible management model,” making it ripe for MBA students to suggest solutions.

Evan Rawley, a management professor at Columbia, has written a couple of Uber case studies over the years, focusing on the company’s competitive advantages vis-a-vis taxis and using “game theory” to analyze the Uber-versus-Lyft rivalry.

“It’s always a real highlight of the year; there are many, many issues one can talk about,” he said. “Now I will add culture change to the list: the difficulties an organization has in changing culture and how that can happen with different incentives, oversight mechanisms, policies, bureaucratizing the organization.”

At USC, students like talking about companies they’re familiar with such as Uber and Snap, said Kalb, the marketing professor. “But then I point out that Uber and Snap have not made any profits, which triggers discussions of what does success mean? They think of it as making lots of money.” Uber lost $2.8 billion on $6.5 billion in revenue last year.

In the classroom of New York University business professor Arun Sundararajan, Uber comes up in several contexts, including the future of mobility, increasing automation, labor and regulatory issues and how to scale.

“My students are far more idealistic and pro-labor than I would have expected from a group of business students,” said Sundararajan, who published a book called “The Sharing Economy” last year. “They are very much on the drivers’ side in the Uber-versus-drivers conversation.”

There’s one business professor who might be able to write the ultimate Uber case study.

Frances Frei this month left Harvard — the cradle of business case studies — to become Uber’s senior vice president of leadership and strategy. She is arriving just as CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick takes a leave of absence from the company, which is also adopting dozens of recommendations for change from a scathing report prepared by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

“As one of the world’s most respected authorities on organizational transformation … she is uniquely qualified for the role — and we know we all have a lot to learn from her,” Uber wrote in a blog post.

So do future generations of MBA students, if and when she dishes on her tenure there.

From San Francisco Chronicle on June 19, 2017 | Written by: Carolyn Said

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